Trope Talk #1: Damsel in Distress

trope talks

I decided to try out something new this week with trope talks! I’ve been interested in the stereotypes, clichés and tropes present in literature and pretty much every type of media we see and I feel that recognizing these tropes will go a long way in gaining a better reading experience.Hopefully, it won’t just be tropes I talk about but book genres and literary patterns. I thought I would start off with an easy one so I could get a feel for what to write etc.

Damsel in Distress

A damsel in distress is essentially a character, most commonly a female, who is put into danger and has to be saved. Everyone knows about this trope and I think for the most part it’s seen as a negative trope nowadays and authors and writers are fully aware that this is not a desirable plot point. I think the most important point of this trope is the fact that this damsel in distress is really even a fully realized character. She might have some agency and personality near the beginning but that’s mostly so the audience can care a little about her. She is most often reduced to being a plot point to add some sort of prize for the hero when he has completed his character arc.

Examples from literature:

-Constance from The Three Musketeers

-Bella from Twilight (as the more modern example)

-Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Ginny and Hermione)

The Disney movie Swan Lake has a particularly bad case of damsel in distress because Odette is kidnapped and saved in all the sequels. Although you could make the case that she is a developed character before she is kidnapped but that doesn’t change the fact that the male protagonist has a more developed arc than she does. It’s important to note, I think, that this device is used to show that the main character–usually male–is “worthy” of being a hero or is in the process of being a classic hero by rescuing said damsel. I think it is important to note that even this trope can be written well if the character is fully realized. I could argue that Hermione is the damsel in distress in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets because she needs to be saved by Harry and Ron. The thing about Hermione’s character is that she has saved Harry and Ron before and after this she has been petrified. She also is not used as a primary narrative force in Harry’s and Ron’s character arcs.The problem is, in a lot of cases, these damsels in distress do not exist except for the sole purpose of being rescued. Think: Mario and Princess Peach.

I’ve often thought about Bella as the probably the most modern and popular of damsels in distress. Views of Bella are pretty polarizing. Do I take this as a sign that she is merely a human in a world of superstrong vampires and can’t really do anything physically substantial or do I take her “weakness” as a person who is not given the space and time to grow as her own character.

Even though, writers steer clear from trying to write the damsel in distress, it oftentimes doesn’t work when they write a pseudo damsel in distress or in the other end of the spectrum, a killing machine of a girl with no emotions and no character arc.

What are some irksome examples of damsels in distress you’ve come across in books? Any good examples? What is your take on this trope? Let me know in the comments!

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